It has been alleged by an Italian journalist who is both an atheist and a friend of Pope Francis that the Pope told him that he does not believe that Jesus Christ is divine.

Dr. Eugenio Scalfari, a 95-year-old who has regularly interviewed the Pope in the past, wrote in his column in Italy’s La Repubblica, that “Pope Francis conceives Christ as Jesus of Nazareth, a man, not God incarnate.”

Catholic News Agency reports:

“Scalfari mentioned examples in Scriptures in which Christ prayed, among them his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, to support his thesis that Jesus Christ was not divine.

He wrote that when he raised those points to Pope Francis, the pope told him: “‘They are the definite proof that Jesus of Nazareth, once he became a man, even if he was a man of exceptional virtue, was not a God.””

The claims by Scalfari have been strong enough to prompt a response from the Vatican itself, with a spokesman for the Pope saying:

“As already stated on other occasions, the words that Dr. Eugenio Scalfari attributes in quotation marks to the Holy Father during talks with him cannot be considered a faithful account of what was actually said but represent a personal and free interpretation of what he heard, as appears completely evident from what is written today regarding the divinity of Jesus Christ”

So what should we make of this?

On the one hand, Pope Francis has granted no less than six interviews to Dr. Scalfari over the course of his papacy, and one might infer from that that the Pope considers him to be a trustworthy journalist. In the ordinary course of events, if a journalist was granted six interviews with the Pope, that journalist would be considered something of an expert on what the Pope thinks. If Scalfari had reported for example that the Pope told him something uncontroversial, there would be no reason whatever to doubt the accuracy of the matter.

The second piece of evidence backing up Scalfari is that the statement issued by the Vatican isn’t the strongest denial in all of history, is it? “Cannot be considered a faithful account of what was actually said” is an awful lot of words when you could just say “The Pope has never said anything like this”.

On the other hand: Come on.

The Pope is many things, but he is, first and foremost, a Catholic. There’s even an old joke about it.

This particular Pope has written and spoken about the Divinity of Jesus Christ on countless occasions (ibid):

In Evangelli Gaudium, the pope speaks of the “divine life” of Jesus.

In his Dec. 24, 2013 homily, the pope said that “The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God…In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.”

Speaking of Jesus last October, the pope said, “God chooses an uncomfortable throne, the cross, from which he reigns giving his life.”

Then we must consider the fact that Dr. Scalfari, while a distinguished journalist, is himself an atheist. At minimum, just as when religious people speaking to atheists often search their words for some evidence that, buried deep inside, there is an ember of faith, it is reasonable to expect that an atheist might over-react to a comment from the Pope, seizing upon it as evidence of something it is not. God or no God, we are all human, and human weakness is universal.

On balance, it would be remarkably foolish to conclude on the basis of one reported comment from a journalist who, apparently, is famous for never taking notes, that the Pope is something other than a standard catholic believer.

Then again, it’s probably not too much for Catholics to expect the head of their religion to be a bit more precise with his language. There’s enough here to cause an almighty row – and people rarely allow the opportunity for a good row to be missed.